State program for blind and visually impaired students continues in new format

July 22, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A summer academy for Pennsylvania high school students who are blind or have other visual impairments was set for its sixth year on Penn State’s University Park campus this July until the coronavirus pandemic forced it to change course. But the state-run program still served students in need, with a virtual format and help from the University. 

Sixteen students throughout Pennsylvania attended the Summer Academy for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired, which ended July 17. The two-week academy focused on enhancing independence skills for students transitioning to post-secondary education and was available at no cost to eligible high school students who anticipate attending college or technical/trade school after graduation.

Karen Walsh-Emma, the academy program director and a vocational rehabilitation specialist supervisor for the state’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, said the agency had limited time to transition the academy from in-person to virtual.

“We had about eight weeks to transition our curriculum once we made the decision in mid-March,” she said. “We worked with Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Education to make sure students’ interactions online were safe, and they assisted us and worked to ensure the students had the equipment and training they needed while providing that behind-the-scenes technical support.”

The Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, which offers the academy, collaborated with Penn State IT, Penn State Conferences and Institutes, and the College of Education, helping with access to Zoom and Canvas and a curriculum that still achieved the academy’s goal of providing self-advocacy skills.

Emily Abel, who lives in Lancaster County and is blind, said learning those skills were critical for her.

“The academy taught me the importance of advocating for myself and my needs,” said Abel, who credited her high school remote-learning experience since the start of the pandemic as a strong foundation for the academy’s online model. “It's not anyone's job to advocate for you but you.”

Justin Laffey, an assistive technology specialist for the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, said many students have supports in their high schools throughout the day, and the program is designed with technology and self-advocacy at its core.

“We try to make sure they’re sharpening their tools in all areas,” he said. “Accessibility is huge to our students whether they're in a learning management system or webinar. They're using all sorts of technology, they use screen readers. We shipped equipment to students and worked 1-on-1 with them remotely to prepare them for the technology aspect of online learning.”

The academy held Zoom sessions for approximately four hours each day and taught skills in several areas, including assistive technology, orientation and mobility, vision rehabilitation therapy, and low vision rehabilitation.

One session helped students learn more about the college application process and tips for a successful first year. James Herbert, professor of counselor education and rehabilitation and human services for the College of Education, said that although the new information and skills learned could not be applied on campus, the information was successfully delivered online.

“We know from prior research that we have undertaken that the Summer Academy has a positive impact on student knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college,” he said. “This year, we demonstrated that the information can be effectively provided via distance.”

Although the sessions were held online, students did complete some assignments at home. For example, families participated in a “Dining in the dark” activity where students guided blindfolded family members through meals.

Ralph Russo, who suffers from nystagmus, a condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements, and nearsightedness known as myopia, said the activity can add an important perspective for people.

“People can learn how difficult it is for individuals with visual impairments and blindness to complete simple, everyday tasks,” said Russo, who is from Montgomery County. “Many people take their good vision for granted and don’t understand these struggles, but others take the time to learn about them and even help those with vision loss.”  

Walsh-Emma said the move to the virtual format gave them the opportunity to place an even higher emphasis on the importance of technology in students’ daily lives.

“With accessibility, you can be successful when you have the tools, skills, knowledge, experience and training,” she said. “Students with disabilities who don't have the training in assistive technology and accessibility really lag or fall behind. The virtual platform really gave us an opportunity to train them on their own personal devices to incorporate all these things.”

The Summer Academy partners with the Department of Special Education, the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network and Penn State’s College of Education and College of Health and Human Development. The academy also works in conjunction with Penn State Conferences and Institutes — a Penn State Outreach service.

Visit the Summer Academy’s website for more information.

Last Updated July 27, 2020